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Can France stop the Morocco wave?

Morocco players celebrate their 1-0 victory over Portugal on Saturday, December 10

Morocco players celebrate their 1-0 victory over Portugal on Saturday, December 10

Morocco’s surprise to a historic semi-final appearance has been the story of the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.

Representing both Africa and the Arab world, the Atlas Lions will now be hoping to produce the performance of their lives to reach Sunday’s final before capacity stadium at Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor City tonight. 

Doha is red and green. Lusail is red and green. Al Khor is red and green. Qatar is red and green. The Arab world is red and green. Africa is red and green too. Or rather, make it the entire football world of neutrals. Tonight, when the Atlas Lions of Morocco take on Kylian Mbappe and France in the second Fifa World Cup semi-final, the reigning world champions Les Blues will be locking horns with a team whose story has captured the hearts and souls of the entire world.

Morocco’s incredible run to a place in the last four has been built around a watertight defence marshalled by Hakimi Achraf, Jawad El Yamiq, Romain Saiss and Yahya Attiat-Allah.

The four have formed a Berlin wall that proved impenetrable for Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. Supporting them at the base of midfield is Fiorentina-based defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who is alongside Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Mbappe, in the running for the Fifa Golden Ball that is awarded to the best player at every World Cup.

Amrabat’s positional awareness, industry, immaculate tackling and ball distribution have been the cornerstone of Morocco’s run to the last four, and his indefatigable powers will be needed for his team to stand a chance of upsetting Didier Deschamps’ France.

Tonight will be a case of the irresistible force against the immovable object; France have arguably the strongest firepower in the competition while Morocco boast the meanest defence.

Coach Walid Regragui’s team have cleared their lines admirably. They defend deep, are imposing in the air and have goalkeeper Yassine Bounou in impeccable form. Portugal and Spain at times ran rings round Morocco but for all their territorial dominance, they laboured to create palpable opportunities inside the box. The few times they did, Bounou stood tall.

But France are a crafty team that know how to win in many ways. They have the searing pace of both Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, who in essence are forwards operating as wide wingers. Fortunately for Morocco, Mbappe will face a familiar player in Achraf who is his teammate at PSG.

In a January tweet, Mbappe wrote, “Achraf Hakimi. Best RB in the world.” Shortly after Morocco stunned Portugal in the quarterfinal, Hakimi posted on Twitter, “See you soon my Friend @Mbappe.”

They are close friends but such pleas- antries will be thrown out of the window when they come face-to-face in what should be an intriguing sub-plot. France’s depth in strength is manifested in how the team has reached the last four despite missing players like Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante who were key figures to their successful tournament in Russia four years ago.

The main difference, however, from their 2022 World Cup run and the title-winning side of 2018 has been the goal-scoring form of Olivier Giroud whose four goals have put him one behind topscorer Mbappe.

Mbappe was man of the match in the quarterfinal victory over England and his livewire presence will keep El-Yamiq and Saiss on their toes.

Morocco will do without Bari-based forward Walid Cheddira, who is suspended after seeing red in the quarterfinals. But the impressive form of Youssef En Nesyri and Hakim Ziyech will stand the Atlas Lions in good stead in front of a partisan crowd that will be rallying behind the Regragui’s side.

France will start the match as favourites, unquestionably. But Morocco will not mind being underdogs. They were not fancied to beat Spain and Portugal but somehow they prevailed. France, who are bidding to become the first team to defend the world title in 60 years, will be wary.

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